The Uzbek crisis is tying Russian policy makers in a Gordian knot. Many in Moscow believe that maintaining stability in Uzbekistan will require Russia to set aside its geopolitical differences with the United States. At the same time, what appears to be a majority of Russian planners feels that substantive cooperation with Washington will be impossible because of the Bush administration's determination to proselytize for a new global democratic order.
The May 13 events in Andijan --where Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of civilian protesters and armed militants -- underscored that fact that Uzbekistan is a powder keg of pent-up social frustration over the President Islam Karimov's resistance to reform. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Regional powers including Russia and the United States -- have an abiding interest in maintaining stability in Uzbekistan, yet there are no clear-cut policy options to choose from. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Karimov's preference for dictatorial governing methods is widely seen as a major source of Uzbekistan's current problems. At the same time, no viable alternatives to Karimov are immediately evident. Opposition parties lack the capacity to govern, and no one wants to see Islamic militants come to power.
Prior to May 13, Uzbekistan could be considered a geopolitical battleground, with Russia trying to woo Karimov back into its sphere of influence. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Following the September 11 tragedy, the Uzbek leader became a key ally in the America-led anti-terrorism campaign. However, in recent months Karimov has clearly grown disenchanted with the American alliance. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Now, some Russian political analysts contend that it is in Moscow's best interests to stop the geopolitical maneuvering in Central Asia, and instead formulate a unified approach with the United States on defusing the Uzbek crisis. The potential consequences of mishandling Uzbekistan -- including the possibility of Islamic militants coming to power, or the emergence of a power-vacuum enabling an explosion of narcotics trafficking far outweigh any benefits that would come from maintaining current policy. "Competition for dominance in this region would be a manifestation of political insanity," said Fedor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the influential foreign policy journal Rossiya v Globalnoi Politike.
There seems to be general consensus in Moscow that the lesser evil in Uzbekistan is keeping Karimov in power, and compelling him to introduce reforms that would open a safety valve for social frustration. This stance would appear to provide room for cooperation with the United States. On May 25, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher signaled that the Andijan events would not significantly diminish US support for Karimov's regime. "The kind of cooperation we can have with Uzbekistan ... is based on common interests," Boucher said during the State Department's daily press briefing. "It doesn't do any of us any good to abandon the effort against terrorism in this critical region. So we will continue work with them in many areas, including the fight against terrorism."
Despite the apparent room for joint action, many Russian policy makers don't see Russia and the United States as capable of cooperating on an Uzbek solution. And without international unity, efforts to pressure Karimov to reform are unlikely to succeed.
From the Russian viewpoint, the Bush administration's infatuation with promoting democratic values is the primary threat to international cooperation on Uzbekistan. Indeed, the US president's democratization dreams could cloud Washington's judgment concerning future stabilization moves in Central Asia, many in Moscow worry.
In a May 17 interview published by the Izvestiya daily, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued that the United States was being overzealous in promoting regime-change in countries in the former Soviet Union, where Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have all experienced revolutions in the past 18 months. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Lavrov went on to suggest that US officials were acting out of the mistaken belief that a universal democratic model existed, adding that for a democratic system to properly develop, the impetus for political change needed to arise from within a particular country. An outside attempt to impose democracy is both "impossible and dangerous," Lavrov warned.
In the aftermath of Andijan, US President George W. Bush has helped stoke Russian concerns. In a May 18 speech at the International Republican Institute in Washington, Bush signaled that the United States would expand its global democratization efforts. "We are seeing the rise of a new generation whose hearts burn for freedom -- and they will have it," Bush said. He announced that he would seek $100 million to establish an emergency response fund to assist democratic development. He also pledged to establish an Active Response Corps of policy troubleshooters. "This new corps will be on call -- ready to get programs running on the ground in days and weeks instead of months and years," Bush said. "If a crisis emerges and assistance is needed, the United States of America will be ready."
Given the precariousness of Uzbekistan's political situation, Bush's comments appalled many Russian policy analysts. A growing number of experts in Moscow now agree with the Nikolai Patrushev, the director of Russia's Federal Security Service, who recently suggested that the Bush administration remained more concerned with "trying to weaken Russia's influence" than it was in keeping Central Asia stable.
The existing lack of trust is prompting a divergence of the Russian and US policy positions on Uzbekistan. Boucher indicated that Washington would continue to press Karimov to ease up on his post-Andijan crackdown against human rights activists and journalists. "Freedom of speech and open access is necessary for a credible investigation" into the Andijan events, Boucher said.
Russia on May 25 expressed support for Karimov, who has rejected US and European Union calls for an independent international investigation into the Andijan events. Karimov has insisted that Uzbek officials will handle any investigation. "Partnership suggests trust between partners [and] if one partner says it will fully investigate the events on its own, one must respect that choice," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Chizhov as saying.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.